Close Encounters with the Third Kind

Deep in the mountains of Yunnan, Stefan Schomann joins the local schoolteacher who helped discover a new species of ape

Some 20 years ago, Li Jiahong heard a siren song deep in the forest, and answered it. Whenever local farmers told the schoolteacher that they had heard or even spotted “black monkeys,” he tried to track the creatures down.

It took him eight years before he eventually caught one on camera—a gibbon in the Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山) on the border of Myanmar. Slowly, the international research machinery cranked into gear. In May 2017, specialists from four continents published the results: Teacher “Gibbon” Li had discovered an entirely new species of ape.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. The American Journal of Primatology lists 15 anatomists, geneticists, taxonomists, and evolutionary biologists who were involved in the identification of Hoolock tianxing (天行 “Skywalker”) gibbon. A tribute to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as well as the Jedi hero of Star Wars, the name is an acknowledgement of the gibbon’s mastery of acrobatics.

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Close Encounters with the Third Kind is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


Stefan Schomann is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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